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Hornworm

Hornworm


My Life

Rotten Tomatoes


Tuesday, September 20, 2011

I’ve had it up to here with tomatoes—and when I say up to here, I am pointing with my finger to my upper neck region and up to the top of my head region. That is how “up to here” I am with tomatoes.

This year, I planned ahead. I built ambitious, seven-foot-tall tomato cages out of heavy construction wire. I bought young, vigorous tomato plants and got them in the ground extra early. My “get ’em in early” strategy seemed to work. The young plants thrived, their hair-like roots gaining a strong foothold into the compost-enriched, mycorrhizae-inoculated soil that I so diligently prepared. The weather was kind, and soon the yellow flowers turned into fruit—fruit so little and perfect, I couldn’t help thinking that these bite-sized replicas were the promise of a bright, tomato-y future.

The emerald gems continued to swell and grow, but then the weather turned not so kind. My mighty and robust tomato plants that just yesterday stood boldly at five feet were today a not-so-bold four feet tall. Overnight, leaves spotted, yellowed, and turned crunchy. I hung my head.

I sat tight and waited for the sun and a summer that was by now weeks late to arrive. Then, a sunny day. And then another. I bought a few more tomato plants. I gave up on the fussy “longing for a simpler time” heirlooms and went with the old standbys. I planted one ‘Early Girl’ and stationed a ‘Better Boy’ near her for encouragement and companionship. I discovered one called ‘San Francisco Fog’, so I bought three, hoping the name would ring true. That delectable but flippant orange cherry ‘Sungold’ joined them. Lastly, I envisioned slicing off a hefty wedge for a perfectly grilled burger, so ‘Beefsteak’ filled out my second round of tomato plants.

This new crop had a few weeks of warmth and sun, but it was as if their little tomato minds were somewhere else. They seemed to know that, although conditions seemed right, the nights would soon carry a chill, and what’s the point of putting all that energy and juice into making stems, leaves, flowers, and all that fruit when they’ll probably just be cut down in their prime.

They flowered but were stingy with the goods, and by the time I discovered the first tomato hornworm giving me the stink eye, he had already voraciously devoured and pooped out almost three quarters of my crop. I unsuccessfully tried to recruit a scrub jay to take him out but eventually had to escort him off the property myself. The worm that came to take his place and finish off the rest of my plants was just as hard to detect and measured as long as the Jolly Green Giant’s middle finger.

Sadly, I’ve discovered that the names of tomatoes are overly optimistic. I’ve come to think that more realistic monikers might tell the true story—with names like ‘Super Neverbearing’, ‘Hornworm Wonder’, ‘Plum Outta-Luck’, ‘Yellow Teardrop’, ‘Nary-A-Cherry’, ‘Roma Nematoda’, ‘Achey Beefsteaky’, ‘Heirloom Gloom’, ‘Better Blight’, and ‘Early Curl’, you’d at least know what you’re in for.

It was very hot this week, and I, for a moment, thought to rush out and buy a few more tomato plants and give it still one more try. I did the math and figured out how many possible days of sun and warmth they’d get. I even considered those new Siberian varieties that you plant in the fall for a late-season bounty but could not envision picking tomatoes with my mittens on.

And to be honest, by this time, I began having visions of cool-growing veggies, including snap and snow peas. As I browsed through the seed rack for some of those intoxicatingly fragrant sweet peas, I reminded myself, “Tomatoes—never again. We’re through. Kaput. Absolutely not. Okay, maybe. I won’t rule it out. I’ll wait and see what the spring is like.”

Billy Collins & Aimee Mann

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